D&D 4E Bridging the cognitive gap between how the game rules work and what they tell us about the setting

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Mod edit-- [+] marker removed.

4E remains the most divisive edition of D&D ever to be released, as well as the one with the shortest lifespan not only in the 21st century, but arguably (depending on how you look at the differences between some of the older editions) in the entire history of the game. Why that is, however, remains controversial. While it's not really arguable that there were a great deal of issues external to the framework of the game rules itself – the GSL, the DDI, and the marketing campaign, to name just a few – there were also a number of changes to the rules, and their presentation, that large swaths of the gaming community found unpalatable.

Now, there's no way to measure how many people didn't like various aspects of the game, let alone the degree of their dislike. But the overall effects aren't open to denial. 3.X had a few months shy of eight years, and then got a new lease on life through Pathfinder. 5E is about to hit its ten-year anniversary, and is looking at a new iteration so modest it's questionable if it can even be called a "half"-edition (i.e. 5.5). In between these, 4E sits as the odd edition out. Why?

Leaving aside the aforementioned related issues, it's worthwhile to look at what 4E did differently from its predecessors in terms of what caused the most push-back. Moreover, it's important to figure out the nature, scope, and extent of those changes, if for no other reason than because they're instructive to our understanding of what tabletop RPGs are and how they work. To that end, we need to be able to look at 4E and evaluate the areas that received the strongest rejection, and we need to be able to do so without getting bogged down by people insisting that what people identified as problematic areas aren't actually problematic at all, that no one really understood the game, that the objections were based on hype and misunderstandings rather than fact, etc.

To that end, this thread (spun off from a related one, where an insightful discussion was derailed by the aforementioned claims being made) is dedicated to examining one (and only one) of the areas where 4E received some of its strongest objections. An area that I've dubbed "the cognitive gap."

A. Defining the Cognitive Gap

Consider the following scenario, presented from an in-game standpoint.

Pushing deep into hostile territory, the knight crept toward the flank of the enemy army. It was yet early in the war, and much of their foes had yet to take to the field, with their forward lines barely mustered. It was a weakness that he was fully intent on taking advantage of now.

Advancing toward the frontmost row of soldiers, unskilled combatants whose purpose was to serve as little more than living shields for their betters in the rear ranks, the knight paused. What he was about to do violated all of the rules of chivalry that he'd grown up with. But those rules would mean little, he knew, if his kingdom fell. "The dead," his king had so solemnly informed him when giving him this mission, "can make no objections as to their killer's conduct." It was the harsh truth between the tourney circuit and the realities of war.

Steeling himself, he dug his spurs into his destrier, charging forward with a battlecry. Ahead of him, the frontmost soldiers shouted in alarm, but were too slow to react as he leaped past their ranks, pushing behind them. Bringing his weapon around, the knight swung as hard as he could at his true target: the clergyman who accompanied them, daring to sanctify their aggression into honest mens' lands. As the blow landed, striking the pontiff down in a single strike, he could already see the ranks of soldiers closing around him, knowing that he'd have to fight harder than he ever had if he wanted to escape. But the deed was done, and the enemy's ecclesiastical support crippled.

He could only hope that it was enough.

Sounds like something that could come from any edition of D&D, doesn't it? Or quite a few other tabletop RPGs, or even other games entirely, for that matter.

And yet, the above actually describes a game of chess, wherein a knight takes a bishop that hasn't yet been brought into play.

So what's the point of all that? Simply put: to showcase that you can have coherent and verisimilitudinous play with any game, if you don't mind making the characterizations on your own. Games such as Monopoly and Clue(do) lend themselves to that, having the trappings of a story already, but you can apply it anywhere, making checkers about a mob fighting for kingship, rochambeau about a streetfight with unconventional weapons, and Jenga about architecture (or mental stability, to extend a popular alternative use).

However, not every game makes this equally easy. Chess or Clue(do) lend themselves much more to creating these in-character understandings than rochambeau does, by way of conveying more information about what's being abstracted (particularly since some games don't even confirm that an abstract representation is taking place to begin with, e.g. tictactoe, requiring that such an understanding be established in the first place) and contextualizing it within the fictional world (which is itself meant to be a persistent and expansive world, i.e. one you can run a campaign in). So while any game can, with enough work, let you build an in-character framework on its rules, the amount of effort that you'll have to put in to make that work can vary considerably.

That cognitive effort that the players have to do to bridge the gap between what the mechanics are and what they tell us about the in-character state of play is the "cognitive gap."

B. 4E and the Gap

The thing to take away here is that all games, presuming that there's any in-character modeling going on, have some degree of cognitive gap. That's simply unavoidable; you can't have a perfect simulation of a fantasy world, and so there will always be some degree of abstraction going on which requires the players to bridge. Likewise, different players (including GMs) will find different "ranges" of gaps preferable. Some won't balk at turning chess into an in-character game like the above. Others will want as much definition handled by the operations of the game mechanics as possible.

So where does 4E fit into the picture?

As an edition of D&D, 4E naturally invites comparison to its predecessors in terms of how much the game's rules tell us about the world it portrays. On a prima facie reading, it seems to do fairly well, as it carries forward any number of D&D traditions (even as it breaks from others, e.g. alignment) and the 4E PHB even has in-character descriptions of how its powers work. For instance, look at the Healing Word power on page 63:

Healing Word
You whisper a brief prayer as divine light washes over your target, helping to mend its wounds.
[...]
Effect: The target can spend a healing surge and regain an additional 1d6 hit points.

Or the Inspiring Word power on page 145:

Inspiring Word
You call out to a wounded ally and offer inspiring words of courage and determination that helps that ally heal.
[...]
Effect: The target can spend a healing surge and regain an additional 1d6 hit points.

Both seem fairly straightforward in what they are, and what they do, nicely bridging the gap, right?

Well, look again.

See, the thing about connecting the gap between the mechanics and what they represent is that this bridging isn't done in isolation. It's being done in pursuit of a larger goal: to contextualize an entire fictional world, one which is meant to be expansive and persistent over multiple courses of play (even if it can be used for smaller, or even single, such instances). To that end, bridging the gap means not only tying the operations of the game mechanics to the in-character actions they represent, but to do so in terms of a larger, cohesive whole.

Which brings us back to the two powers cited above. Both have the same mechanic, which is that the target gets to spend a healing surge and regain an additional 1d6 hit points. But the in-character representation for this, the same operation, is two very different things: one involves healing physical injury, whereas the other involves "courage and determination" rather than closing wounds (with a reference to healing that's also hard to contextualize with the rest of the sentence).

One game mechanic, i.e. hit point restoration, is now being contextualized as two different things. Faced with two different explanations, the question of what that mechanic represents from an in-game standpoint becomes murky, with different explanations being offered, meaning that they have to be reconciled if the different interpretations come to clash in the course of play. (For example, if you only have 2 hit points left after being dealt an injury, recover 7 hit points of "courage and resilience," and then take 5 hit points of injury, you have 4 hit points left, but you've lost all of the hit points that were previously tagged as being contextualized as wounds, so how are you still alive?)

And just like that, we've the cognitive gap has widened.

C. The Changing Paradigm

Now, a common refrain when this instance of the mechanics serving double-duty is pointed out is that hit points have always been multiple things, going all the way back to AD&D. "Just look," say people, "at page 82 of the 1E DMG! Gary Gygax flat-out says that hit point loss isn't just injury!"

It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage - as indicated by constitution bonuses- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skillin combat and similar life-or-death situations, the "sixth sense" which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck,and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection. Therefore, constitution affects both actual ability to withstand physical punishment hit points (physique) and the immeasurable areas which involve the sixth sense and luck (fitness).

And that would seem to suggest that 4E's presentation is, at the very least, no greater a cognitive gap than what D&D has previously seen.

The problem here is that, outside of one or two other places (i.e. the AD&D PHB p. 34) where Gygax makes the same claim, he never actually makes this point in the game's actual mechanics. Insofar as the actual operations of the rules go, there are simply no instances of the "hit points are a lot of different things" idea to be found. Take, for instance, the basic clerical healing spell, which is named cure light wounds (AD&D 1E PHB, p. 43). Even if we overlook the name itself (which we shouldn't, as the name is also part of what the game is telling us about the mechanics in-character presentation), it says (emphasis mine):

Upon laying his or her hand upon a creature, the cleric causes from 1 to 8 hit points of wound or other injury damage to the creature's body to be healed. This healing will not affect creatures without corporeal bodies, nor will it cure wounds of creatures not living or those which can be harmed only by iron, silver, and/or magical weapons. Its reverse, cause light wounds, operates in the same manner; and if a person is avoiding this touch, a melee combat "to hit" die is rolled to determine if the cleric's hand strikes the opponent and causes such a wound. Note that cured wounds are permanent only insofar as the creature does not sustain further damage, and that caused wounds will heal - or can be cured - just as any normal injury will. Caused light wounds are 1 to 8 hit points of damage.

Similar instances abound with regard to restoring hit points. Nowhere in AD&D do we find an instance of a spell called restore luck or renew divine protection to replenish hit points. Even when it comes to psionics, we're told (AD&D 1E DMG p. 77; emphasis mine):

Damage accruing beyond the point where 0 psionic attack points was reached results in physical damage (hit points) being taken by the defender on a point for point basis.

Or with regard to being hit by poisoned weapons (AD&D 1E DMG, p. 81):

For those who wonder why poison does either killing damage (usually) or no harm whatsoever, recall the justification for character hit points. That is, damage is not actually sustained – at least in proportion to the number of hit points marked off in most cases. The so called damage is the expenditure of favor from deities, luck, skill, and perhaps a scratch, and thus the saving throw. If that mere scratch managed to be venomous, then DEATH. If no such wound was delivered, then NO DAMAGE FROM THE POISON. In cases where some partial damage is indicated, this reflects poisons either placed so that they are ingested or used so as to ensure that some small portion does get in the wound or skin of the opponent.

If that last one sounds like a further repudiation of hit point loss being injury, read it again. Gygax says it's not an injury "at least in proportion" to the damage taken, which essentially grants the idea that the damage is being taken...it's just not "proportional" and so might be a "mere scratch."

That's actually rather important, because it reminds us that the bridging the cognitive gap is essentially an order of operations wherein we take what the game's rules are and build upon them until we've reached the desired level of in-character presentation. For instance, using the method described in the actual AD&D 1E game rules (as opposed to the Gygax's mini-essays), a player bridging the gap would go through some variation of the following cognitive process:
  1. Determine hit points regained
  2. Contextualize this with injuries taken when hit points were lost.
In 4E, which made the mechanics of losing/regaining hit points explicitly acknowledge multiple ideas, there's an extra step added in this process:
  1. Determine hit points regained
  2. Determine if this means injuries were healed or courage/resilience is restored.
  3. Contextualize this with how injuries were taken and/or how courage/resilience was lost when hit points were lost.
In other words, there's not only an extra step that needs to be taken to bridge the gap, but what needs to be contextualized now has its own and/or process that can be fouled up, requiring greater work on the player's part to keep straight.

D. Areas of Interpretation

Now, it needs to be said that no abstraction is going to be perfect; remember, every game has a cognitive gap of some degree. What strikes me as the most salient takeaway is that when a game is around long enough, people grow to learn where its cognitive gaps are and how much work it takes to bridge them (and, most importantly, if that's work that they're comfortable performing again and again during the course of play). For D&D, I'd say that even across multiple edition changes, most players felt that they knew where the cognitive gaps were and were comfortable bridging them.

Then 4E came along and completely changed everything.

As noted before, different people have different degrees to which they're fine bridging (or simply ignoring) a particular gap. But when you change one or more gaps for an established game, you run into issues of confounded expectations. For whatever reason, few things upset fans more than having their expectations betrayed, and for a lot of people 4E's shifting of where the bridges over its cognitive gaps needed to be built was quite a few bridges too far. The hit point issue is just one example in that regard, but remains a central one, as it's still being talked about all these years later.

To that end, it remains to be seen how much 5E 2024 (or whatever it ends up being called), shuffles the gaps around, and how much bridging players will need to do.
 
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I can't really speculate about anyone else's feelings on this, but here's how it worked out for me. I always thought of hit points as an abstraction and never liked, or really understood, the meat argument. After being on this site for a while I have since understood the meat side, but will never agree with it. This affected my reading of the HP healing affects greatly. When they alluded to healing actual wounds I always saw that as a holdover from older editions. I basically just mentally rewrote the effects in my head to not make those connections between wounds and HP, so that healing word power was rewritten to say something like; You whisper a quick prayer and your allies feel divine energy bolster them. My take on this is that 4th needed to take a firm stand on the HP issue, but that probably wouldn't have been well accepted either. Definitely better in my own opinion, but not well received overall.

Taking this a bit further, I'd like to see an actual injury mechanic that kicks in when you go down to 0 HP. A simple debuff would be good for the first injury you take, every further injury you take before healing would roll on a chart with a chance of a serious injury happening. Healing these injuries would take a ritual to heal, making healing actual injuries a lengthy and costly affair.

Edit: thinking about this possible injury rule, it's probably a little too punishing. Maybe making going to 0 HP force a roll on an injury table that has only a 25% chance for an actual minor injury to happen. These minor injuries could be cured by either a lv.1 ritual or a long rest, and they wouldn't stack. On a natural 1 you'd get a major injury that would require a higher level ritual to cure, or extended rest and doctor care. That would make going to 0HP scary without being too punishing.

Maybe even that might be too much to keep 4th's feel though, so maybe it's not a good idea for the game. That's how I'd want magical healing to work in the game though. Making actual healing the realm of rituals exclusively, with HP being completely removed from the equation.
 
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Voadam

Legend
Or with regard to being hit by poisoned weapons (AD&D 1E DMG, p. 81):
"For those who wonder why poison does either killing damage (usually) or no harm whatsoever, recall the justification for character hit points. That is, damage is not actually sustained – at least in proportion to the number of hit points marked off in most cases. The so called damage is the expenditure of favor from deities, luck, skill, and perhaps a scratch, and thus the saving throw. If that mere scratch managed to be venomous, then DEATH. If no such wound was delivered, then NO DAMAGE FROM THE POISON. In cases where some partial damage is indicated, this reflects poisons either placed so that they are ingested or used so as to ensure that some small portion does get in the wound or skin of the opponent."

If that last one sounds like a further repudiation of hit point loss being injury, read it again. Gygax says it's not an injury "at least in proportion" to the damage taken, which essentially grants the idea that the damage is being taken...it's just not "proportional" and so might be a "mere scratch."
Can you explain your thinking on this point a little more?

I read that as saying an actual envenomed scratch is instant death. So a venomous monster (giant spider with venomous bite, giant scorpion with poison stinger, a viper's fangs injecting venom, etc.) strikes a PC and does a d6 points of damage and a poison save with failure = death. If the save is failed the PC was scratched and the d6 hp damage is in part the scratch where the venom gets in. The save represents whether the hit was a scratch or not. If the save is made the d6 hp is not even a scratch though, no venom, but still hp damage. "If no such wound was delivered, then NO DAMAGE FROM THE POISON" the d6 hp still happens though and would come from the other parts of the hp, the "so called damage is the expenditure of favor from deities, luck, skill".

Are you reading it that the attack hits and always causes a physical wound but sometimes fails to inject and so the scratch is not envenomed?
 
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I understand HP on a sort of a proportional level. If you want to know how injured someone is in D&D you look at their loss of HP as a percentage of their total.

So a fighter who has 80 of 90 hp left is fairly unharmed, whereas a wizard who has 2 of 12 hp left is just hanging on, even though they both lost 10 hp. That's why you gain hp as you level up - not because you are getting more "meat", but because you are getting better at avoiding damage. So in a way there is the element of luck and skill in there but crucially any damage is "hurt" damage, just varying in a proportional sense.

The only issue is that it also adds in a strange quirk - the better you are at avoiding damage the worse cure spells are at healing you, but maybe that's a thing about the divine being more stingy with their blessings on the strong vs the weak.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Supporter
4E remains the most divisive edition of D&D ever to be released, as well as the one with the shortest lifespan not only in the 21st century, but arguably (depending on how you look at the differences between some of the older editions) in the entire history of the game.
Mod Note:

Duuuuuuude, that’s one of the worst ways to open a [+] thread I’ve ever seen. Its confrontational tone is practically guaranteed to raise hackles from the very beginning.

Do better going forward.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Can you explain your thinking on this point a little more?
That paragraph is, as I read it, Gygax trying to explain what's happening in instances where the attack roll is successful (i.e. the target is successfully hit, which would presumably inject the poison into the target) but the save is successful (i.e. they aren't poisoned).

In terms of why he felt that paragraph was necessary, I can only guess, but my presumption is that he's of the opinion that poison isn't really something you fight off, per se. If you're poisoned, then you should suffer the effects as per a failed save, so a successful save must mean something else, i.e. that you were never hit with the poison to begin with...despite the successful attack roll. Which then brings him back around to the idea that hit points lost aren't an injury delivered.

Except he undercuts himself in the same paragraph by then saying that hit points lost can be injuries, just not "in proportion" to the hit points lost (i.e. they could be a "mere scratch"), which brings up issues of bridging the gap in terms of connecting injuries to hit points lost. Especially since you can't quantify the deadliness of a particular injury in absolute terms from an in-character standpoint. How long/deep does a laceration have to be before it's not just a "mere scratch" anymore?

Which really, to my mind, obviates the entire need for this paragraph. Even if a character is injured by a poisoned attack, it doesn't necessarily have to be a given that the poison gets into their system. The successful saving throw (which is a separate operation, and so isn't tied to the operation of gaining/losing hit points) can be that they sucked the poison out quick enough to succeed, or that the gout of blood that the injury opened up spurted with such force that it carried the poison out of their system, or that they made a tourniquet around the injury and rolled it downward until it pushed the venom out, etc.

Now, most of those explanations are ridiculous in terms of how poison operates in the real world, but as has been noted before, D&D doesn't operate as a simulation of the real world. It's a model of pulp stories, myths and legends, and action movies/shows. Whether or not the explanation is contrived is less important than whether or not it keeps consistency with everything else, i.e. verisimilitude.
 

Voadam

Legend
That paragraph is, as I read it, Gygax trying to explain what's happening in instances where the attack roll is successful (i.e. the target is successfully hit, which would presumably inject the poison into the target) but the save is successful (i.e. they aren't poisoned).

In terms of why he felt that paragraph was necessary, I can only guess, but my presumption is that he's of the opinion that poison isn't really something you fight off, per se. If you're poisoned, then you should suffer the effects as per a failed save, so a successful save must mean something else, i.e. that you were never hit with the poison to begin with...despite the successful attack roll.
Agree completely.
Which then brings him back around to the idea that hit points lost aren't an injury delivered.
Here we have a bit of difference on what Gygax is saying hp are.

I don't believe he is saying that hp damage is never physical injuries.

I believe he is saying hp are a conglomerate concept including a bunch of different things, luck, skill in reducing damage, skill in avoiding damage, ability to take physical injury. It can be any of those, it is not just one and depends on what makes sense in the situation. When you get stabbed to 0 and die that is a physical injury. When you get hit for damage but no poison then the damage is to other conceptual parts of the hp, your limited ability to physically get out of the way of deadly damage.

D&D has a bunch of such conglomerate concepts. AC is another big one including dodging a blow entirely, deflecting a blow with a shield, and getting hit by a blow and not caring because the armor protects you from being cut.
Except he undercuts himself in the same paragraph by then saying that hit points lost can be injuries, just not "in proportion" to the hit points lost (i.e. they could be a "mere scratch"), which brings up issues of bridging the gap in terms of connecting injuries to hit points lost. Especially since you can't quantify the deadliness of a particular injury in absolute terms from an in-character standpoint. How long/deep does a laceration have to be before it's not just a "mere scratch" anymore?

Which really, to my mind, obviates the entire need for this paragraph. Even if a character is injured by a poisoned attack, it doesn't necessarily have to be a given that the poison gets into their system. The successful saving throw (which is a separate operation, and so isn't tied to the operation of gaining/losing hit points) can be that they sucked the poison out quick enough to succeed, or that the gout of blood that the injury opened up spurted with such force that it carried the poison out of their system, or that they made a tourniquet around the injury and rolled it downward until it pushed the venom out, etc.

Now, most of those explanations are ridiculous in terms of how poison operates in the real world, but as has been noted before, D&D doesn't operate as a simulation of the real world. It's a model of pulp stories, myths and legends, and action movies/shows. Whether or not the explanation is contrived is less important than whether or not it keeps consistency with everything else, i.e. verisimilitude.
I narratively would prefer not having Conan tying tournequets in the middle of a fight with a giant venomous snake. Struggling and sweating and getting progressively more shaken and desperate as the snake snaps at him but does not actually land a strike to inject the venom seems preferable.

Your narrative is closer to the dice roll mechanics order of operations (struck then save) but seems farther from cool sword and sorcery ongoing combat action narratives.
 


aco175

Legend
1702994337012.png

This guy could be down 20HP without needing something blown off and take either one of the spells mentioned below.

Inspiring Word
You call out to a wounded ally and offer inspiring words of courage and determination that helps that ally heal.
Healing Word
You whisper a brief prayer as divine light washes over your target, helping to mend its wounds.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Agree completely.

Here we have a bit of difference on what Gygax is saying hp are.

I don't believe he is saying that hp damage is never physical injuries.
I don't think that he's saying that it's never physical injuries either; just that the alternatives he outlines are supported far less than the injury presentation, in terms of what the game's mechanics tell us.
I believe he is saying hp are a conglomerate concept including a bunch of different things, luck, skill in reducing damage, skill in avoiding damage, ability to take physical injury. It can be any of those, it is not just one and depends on what makes sense in the situation. When you get stabbed to 0 and die that is a physical injury. When you get hit for damage but no poison then the damage is to other conceptual parts of the hp, your limited ability to physically get out of the way of deadly damage.

D&D has a bunch of such conglomerate concepts. AC is another big one including dodging a blow entirely, deflecting a blow with a shield, and getting hit by a blow and not caring because the armor protects you from being cut.
All abstractions necessarily conglomerate things, at least in terms of how D&D works; it's why you're never going to get (as noted before) an abstraction that perfectly models everything it represents. Hit points as an injury representation necessarily conglomerate a very wide range of injuries. That said, I'm of the opinion that greater precision in what's being represented (i.e. the more clearly the abstraction informs us as to what it's representing), the less work is required of the players to make the connection.

Obviously, there's a trade-off there, as this precision narrows the range of abstraction, and so requires more operations (i.e. rules) to be used to model what's happening. That allows for greater representation of the in-game circumstances, but can slow down the course of play; it's why D&D doesn't use hit locations or wound tracking. Where the happy medium lies will vary from person to person, but that doesn't mean we can't at least try to come to an agreement regarding the degree of abstraction that certain paradigms are using.
I narratively would prefer not having Conan tying tournequets in the middle of a fight with a giant venomous snake. Struggling and sweating and getting progressively more shaken and desperate as the snake snaps at him but does not actually land a strike to inject the venom seems preferable.

Your narrative is closer to the dice roll mechanics order of operations (struck then save) but seems farther from cool sword and sorcery ongoing combat action narratives.
D&D is absolutely built to model those old stories, but by that same token, it doesn't mandate that they unfold in the same narrative manner. Conan wouldn't catch sight of a ghost and be aged into decrepitude in an instant, or fail his save against a charm person spell and think that Thoth Amon was his best buddy, or die from being poisoned and be reincarnated as a kobold, etc.

I can understand wanting things to go the way they do in those old stories (I do too!), but narrativism has always been an area where D&D has placed the least importance.
 

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